(Above) Bleek Gilliam (DenzelWashington) enjoysa passionate love attairwith aspiring singerClarke Betancourt (Cynda Williams) and (below) Giant(Spike Leeldiscusses his debts with his bookie. Petey (Ruben Blades).
ere's your starter for ten: Name the leth I century artform created by black Americans. owing its prime innoyations ( to black Americans. and whose major stylists are yirtually all black I Americans'.’ I
At the risk of alienating our readership of 3 Benny (ioodman and Glenn Miller fans. the answer is. ofcourse. jazz. the artistic medium which towers oyer much of our century‘s popular musical actiyity. Deyeloping out ofearly New Orleans styles. the Tin Pan Alley boom and driying swing ofthe 30s. which in turn gaye birth to the 40s bop reyolution. proyided the matrix of melody. yariation and floor-filling rhythmic impetus that was the basic material for the later explosion of pop and rock. While jazz is part of the liying blues tradition going back to the field hollers ofthe slayery days. as a form the blues always was fairly primitiye and remained complete by around 1900. so we base the pantheon of jazz greats to thank for the sophistication of musical conception and i performance that has greatly enriched our cultural experience.
So anyway. didn't someone once mention that this was a piece about Spike Lee'.’ Where does he fit into all this‘.’ Well. firstly. he‘s spent a year of his life and Sl 1.5 million of Llniyersal Pictures' money in making a jazz moyie. a film that pays tribute to this great black American inyention.
It's an act ofcultural consolidation. as he admits in his introduction to the book accompanying .llo' Better Blues. Disliking both Bertrand 'l‘ayernier‘s Round .l/ulniglzt and Clint Iiastwood's Charlie Parker biopic Biril for what he adjudged ‘narrow depictions ofthe liyes of Black Musicians‘. adyance word of a prospectiye Woody Allen jazz project spurred him into action. ‘You know I couldn't let Woody Allen do a jazz film before I did. I was on a mission.‘
In the wake of [Do The Right 'l'lzing‘s full—frontal exposure of New York‘s racial problems. its influence on the subsequent election of the city‘s current black Mayor Dayid Dimpkins. and the mantle apparently thrust upon Spike I.ee as the spokesperson fora black generation. making a moyie that‘sjust about music might seem somethingofa political climb—down. Beginning with his first two pictures .S/ie's (iottu llui'e It and .S'e/iool [)uze. I.ec howeyer. has always used songs to carry some of his films‘ thematic weight. most obyiously in the ubiquitous and anthemic threading of Public Iinemy's l’iglit The Power through Do The Right llting. Indeed. through the image of the ltalian—American pictures on the walls of Sal‘s pizzeria. through I.ee's character challenging Sal‘s racist son (.lohn 'l‘urturro) oyer his tastes in black music. through the local disc jockey"s consciousness-raising roll call ofgreat black musicians. and through Sal‘s (Danny Aiello) destruction of Radio Raheem‘s ( Bill a Nunn ) ghettoblaster. l)o illit’ Rig/it 'l‘liing saw l.ee bringing music to the fore of the social racial cultural tensions.
.lazz was going through this routine thirty years ago. In his groundbreaking study Black .Vutirmulism multlze Revolution in .llusie (first published in 197(1) Frank Kofsky outlines the links between jazz music and Afro-x‘xmerican political consciousness from the 40s to the late (ills. when. decades before Public Iinemy and the Boo-Ya 'l‘ribe. the medium proyided a soundtrack to the struggle for equality. Kofsky states as follows: ‘Black nationalist ideas first gained currency within the jazz milieu. There should be nothing surprising in this. for in no
other sphere is the disparity between the leyel of.l black achieyement and the lack of appropriate white recognition as gross as in jazz: nowhere
else. that is. is a black man yenerated as an artist
of the greatest creatiye potential at precisely the same moment as he is being pushed into the
gutter as a nigger.‘
Kofsky looks at white critics denying any race issue apparent in the mid—40s Parker tune-Notes The Time. sketches the resistance faced in the late Slls when saxman Sonny Rollins recorded his Freer/(mi Suite ( Riyerside) and drummer Max Roach his controyersial longplayer We lnsist.’ Freedom .\'ow.’. before further detailing the forthright political stance of the (ills New 'I‘hing I ayant—garde. (‘ombining declamatory yerse with l titanic sax blowing. the late olls Archie Shepp of 1 Fire .llusie ( Impulse ) and [hem l’or .lliileolm (.»\ffinity) was the Boogie I)ow n Productions of his day. 'I play about the death of me by you. I j exult in the life of me in spite of you.‘ he claimed.
The giant ofthe (ills jazz reyolution remains the hugely important figure of John (’oltrane. who took the music higher into the stratosphere and further away from white western classicism than eyer before. and whose passionately egalitarian mysticism influenced leaders like Malcolm X. I lis best known record is probably 1905‘s gt lore Supreme. which was to haye been the title for Spike Lee‘s jazz moyie .llo' Better Blues unl il the (‘oltrane estate objected to the profanity in the screenplay. \‘eyertheless. a substantial portion of the record emerges on the soundtrack. and l .ee brandishes a quotation from ('oltrane's sleeye poem:
.Vomutterwliut. . . it
Is wit/i (foil. He is griu'ious unilmert'ilul. His way is through love.
In wliielz wen/lure. It is
'l‘ruly' - .-l l.()l 'lx'Sl 'l’RlJl/lj.
From this you might figure that .llo' Better Blues is not as oyertly political a film as UN 'llie Rig/it 'l'liing. and you'd be right. Den/cl Washington stars as Bleek (iilliam. a dedicated contemporary jazz trumpeter whose immersion in the music blinds him to the discord in his band. the incompetence ofhis manager ( iiant (Spike lee). ‘ and the romantic turmoil ofthe two (count tin) women in his life. teacher Indigo (.loie lee ) and j aspiring singer ( ‘larke ((‘ynda Williams). ( largely. it‘s a loye story. a story of the need to I accept responsibility and to be aware of the needs I and aspirations ofothers. Ifthe plotting were not l
so thin. the characterisation so unconyincing. and the pacing so scrappy. it might be morally uplifting stuff. but one has to reluctantly admit that the real pleasures and significance in .l/o' Better Blues lie in the film‘s incidental ingredients rather than the main thrust. While I.ee has still to dey elop the use ofhis woman characters much beyond sexual I stereotype ("With men. it‘s a dick thang' explains j Denzel. ‘A I)—I—(‘-I\' thangf). the films agile i camerawork and buoyant colour design repay l attention. I loweyer. by choosing the subject of ( jazz. Spike the spokesperson is ot‘le ring a j statement about the position today ofthis music within his own black American culture. a statement ofconsolidation and celebration. 'l‘he son ofjazz bassist and composer Bill lee. who writes the scores for his boys moyies. Spike is in a better position than most to take on this task. and it‘s notable that .llo' Better Blues yeers away from ‘ the nostalgic romantic genius yictim outlook of j
Birrl and Round .lliilniglit to explore the J
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